Well, let's turn today's title around and start with the bad news first. It turns out there's a new member in the not-so-exclusive Toyota recallathon club: The Toyota Sienna minivan from model years 1998-2010. The automaker is recalling some 600,000 of them, as a cable that holds their spare tires in place can become corroded from road salt.
How corroded you may ask? Bad enough that, in Toyota's terms, "the spare tire could become separated from the vehicle," causing a big-time surprise for anyone who might be driving behind a Sienna at the time.
For those keeping score at home, this follows on the heels of two more blows to Toyota's reputation. The automaker had to halt sales of the Lexus GX460 last week over rollover concerns, and the "New York Times" is reporting that the automaker has now replicated the problem in its own testing. At this stage, per a Lexus rep, the company is "currently evaluating potential remedies"'”however, "at this point there are no details of what the remedy is."
Then, over on the other coast, the "L.A. Times" noticed that the Toyota Venza was recalled on December 16 of last year for the floormat business in Canada, yet the vehicle didn't make it onto the U.S. recall list for another month and a half. Needless to say, that delay isn't playing too well in Washington, D.C.
And all of these obstacles mean the 2011 Toyota Sienna hasn't been selling too well here in the U.S.
Now, I've been predicting a minivan resurgence for a while now, and the Sienna was supposed to kick things off thanks to a major repositioning effort on the part of Toyota. Remembering that everything's relative, and that it's the minivan segment we're talking about, the Sienna received some aggressive new styling'”from the C-pillar forward, it could be mistaken for a crossover'”along with a "sport" package for more enthusiastic driving, optional all-wheel drive and a massive marketing campaign aimed at male drivers.
It also came out at a good time from a product-cycle standpoint. Sienna is the first completely new minivan of the post-meltdown era, and its major competition is still in transition mode. The Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan remain strong products, especially in terms of interior versatility, but they need some updating if driving dynamics become part of the purchase decision for minivan buyers. This is the kind of thing a healthy Chrysler could address with a mid-cycle enhancement; today's Chrysler, not so much.
And while Kia continues to revitalize its lineup with products like the current Kia Sorento and next-generation Kia Optima/Kia Sportage, that kind of excitement hasn't yet trickled down to the Kia Sedona minivan'”and it's not going to. The South Korean automaker is going to follow the lead of its corporate sibling Hyundai and leave the segment.
That means the biggest competition for the Sienna is likely to be the next-generation Honda Odyssey, which, like the Toyota, appears to be headed for positioning as a minivan for people who don't want to drive a minivan. But based on the Odyssey "concept" displayed at the recent Chicago Auto Show, as well as the spy shots that have shown up on the Internet, the vehicle will be taking a more car-like approach than the 2011 Sienna.
Nissan also is readying a new minivan for 2011, and although there aren't many details yet, the company proved it could go outside of the minivan box back in 2004, when it launched the controversially styled third-generation Quest. So it wouldn't be a surprise if the next one is another breakthrough vehicle for the company, and it's worth pointing out that most observers are expecting to see a 300-hp V6 in the final product. (Note: Nissan is not selling a 2010 Quest.)
This would top the segment and best the Sienna by about 35 horses, but I'm thinking Nissan's headed the wrong way here. Given the need for improved fuel efficiency, kicking off a minivan horsepower war doesn't seem like it would make much sense.
A hybrid minivan, on the other hand, seems like a no-brainer. And U.S. customers could see one as soon as next year, if recent news out of Japan is any indication. A minivan wearing Toyota Prius badging is apparently in the works, possibly to be equipped with a new lithium-ion battery pack develop in house by the automaker.
Whether it will be enough to get people to forget about the rest of the Toyota mess is another story.